Ethics of Hunger Strikes and Forced Feeding

Photo: FJJ
Chicago World Can't Wait | March 2, 2014

On February 27, World Can’t Wait Chicago was part of a coalition effort to screen Doctors of the Dark Side and host a panel to discuss it. February marks the one year anniversary of the hunger strike at Guantanamo so the Chicago Coalition to Shut Down Guantanamo wanted to dig more deeply into the ethical and legal questions it poses. The event surpassed many of expectations. All three speakers added depth and specific information to what was already a powerful film.

Our first speaker was Dr. Frank Summers, clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst active in the fight to sanction members of his profession who participate in torture. He talked about the principle in psychology of preserving the self, which includes preserving the principles that define you as a person, that are essential to preserving your self. So if you put your life at risk to fight fascism, for example, that is not suicidal, it’s preserving self in this sense. He categorically rejected equating hunger striking, even to death, with suicide, which didn’t surprise me, but this understanding of self preservation was new to me, and important to think about. If I understood him correctly, he was also saying that he thinks there’s a fundamental conflict of interest for medical professionals to be in the military, where they have to follow orders regardless.

Dr. Irene Martinez, physician, writer, and co-founder of the Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture, presented a medical perspective on hunger striking. She also strongly rejected equating it with suicide. She said a physician must interview the potential hunger striker to ensure the person is not being coerced to participate, is not participating out of depression, and understands the potential risks but, given that, the doctor’s role should be to support that person as much as possible (e.g. with information, vitamins, etc.) In other words, the person must be making an informed decision. She spoke of the physician’s duty to respect and support the person’s autonomy, a concept in line with what Dr. Summers described but somewhat different as well. She also gave a very brief introduction to the long, and international, history of the use of the hunger strike to attract attention for a cause - from Ireland and Turkey to suffragettes in the US - and to provoke meaningful responses to a grievance.

Finally, Dr. Abdul-Malik the Muslim chaplain at DePaul University, described different views within Islam about hunger striking - some reject it as a sign of a lack of hope and faith in Allah, others (like him) view it as an expression of hope that you put your last strength into the fight for change, for justice. He said Guantanamo is designed to create despair (as illustrated in the film tonight) so to act against that situation was an act of hope. He said the despair and hopelessness is not confined to the detainees but pervades the Muslim community as well. He said he always emphasizes to his students  at DePaul that, when they speak out against the treatment of detainees or Muslims elsewhere, they have to speak out against anyone being treated that way. He also contrasted the ethical arguments against Guantanamo to pragmatic ones, e.g. ‘torture doesn’t work anyway,’ pointing out the danger in the latter. (I understood his implication to be - what if it did ‘work’? Would that be okay?) He also made an interesting point during the discussion - He said the government likes to pose the question in terms of “Are you willing to give up some of your rights for safety?” but in fact they are really asking “Are you willing to give up someone else’s rights for your own safety?”

One thread throughout the discussion was hope - where do we find it? Dr. Martinez and Dr. Malik both emphasized that most people in this country would not agree with this torture (in all its forms) if they knew about it. Dr. Malik backed this up by listing all the things the US government does to try to keep the population in this country from knowing, including the very fact that a hunger strike is going on at Guantanamo! Another thread was the fact that prisoners in this country are held in conditions of torture. A member of Stop Mass Incarceration Network Chicago spoke from the floor, listing several hunger strikes going on right now in US prisons against solitary confinement and pointing out the link to Guantanamo in prisoners resisting their inhumane treatment. Dr. Summers objected to the very term “solitary confinement” and says it should be called “sensory deprivation,” which is what it is and that is torture. In other words, our fight for basic justice for the detainees in Guantanamo and the closure of that torture camp is very much connected to fighting to end torture in prisons here - and supporting prisoners when they stand up for their most basic rights.